And if you were starting a team and could take either one, which would you prefer? That was the question posed in this week's SI poll of coaches and general managers. The winner was Malone, 15-7. (Three teams didn't respond, and the votes of Utah and Philadelphia didn't count.)
There were common threads in the voting. Malone's supporters invariably mentioned his loyal-soldier qualities and contrasted them with Bark-ley's penchant for controversy (page 186). But Barkley's backers felt that there was no substitute for talent and that he achieved more with less, having no John Stockton to deliver him the ball.
"If it was just basketball you were talking about, I'd go with Barkley," said one Western Conference executive who voted for Malone. "But it's gotten so bad this year with the off-court distractions and his unhappiness with being on the Sixers that it finally has had an effect on his play. He hasn't been as consistent. With the Mailman, you know he's going to play hard every night, and you don't have the worries of what might happen after the game." Said another Malone backer, a Western Conference head coach: "This isn't to say Charles is a bad guy, because he isn't. But the off-court baggage detracts from his game and, more important, is a constant distraction to the team." An Eastern head coach agreed: "Charles is better when he wants [to play hard], but you never know when that's going to be. I'll take Karl." And an executive in the West actually had a basketball reason for taking Malone—he feels that the Mailman's game, at least in the low post, is more varied and potent than Barkley's.
But a Barkley voter, an Eastern Conference head coach, said: "I like Charles's heart, the way he overcomes the size disadvantage, the way he takes over a game all by himself." Other Barkley supporters mentioned his versatility and the fact that he puts the ball on the floor much better than Malone. And, finally, one Eastern Conference head coach had this unique reason for choosing Barkley: "I want to write my own book someday, and he'd make it more interesting."
The Early Lottery Line
The words lottery pick are a major cause of indigestion among NBA front-office types. As soon as a college player hears the magic L-phrase ascribed to him, the chance that he will appear in the postseason all-star tournaments grows slim (particularly if he has already hired an agent). If the player doesn't show, a big opportunity to evaluate his talent goes poof.
Therefore, despite being quietly optimistic about this year's college talent, pro scouts, general managers and player-personnel directors have a smaller-than-usual list of surefire lottery picks. One scout who tagged player after player as "borderline lottery" finally paused and said, "Well, we've gotta have 11 players in this thing, don't we?"
Yes, that's the way it will operate on June 24 in Portland, the site of this year's draft. Three of those lottery names will be Jimmy Jackson of Ohio State, Harold Miner of USC and Shaquille O'Neal of LSU—if those heralded juniors decide to enter the draft. "And if they come out, a good draft becomes a great draft," says Seattle general manager Bob Whitsitt. Despite reports to the contrary, no one can say for sure whether any of the three has really decided what he'll do.
O'Neal is No. 1 in any scenario if he comes out, but no one is counting on that, so the top-pick derby currently centers on two other big men, Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning and Duke's Christian Laettner, both of whom are seniors. Mourning's appeal has climbed considerably this season, and most scouts rate Mourning's pro potential as slightly higher than Laettner's. But a number of teams would take Laettner just as quickly.
"I've heard a lot of nonsense about neither being a true center," says one NBA scout. "All I know is that if you don't have a center, you'd be crazy not to take one of these guys."